A storyteller searches for the soul of her city

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SF’S SOUL — Brenda Wong Aoki (L) and devorah major were among the “Soul of the City” artists at the show’s June 1-2 presentation at the Presidio Theatre. photo by William Lee

“Soul of the City” is a music and dance ritual performance based on a combination of Japanese theater and Afro-Asian jazz. Originally performed nine months ago, it was completely revived, reprised and recreated June 1 and 2 at San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre with additional music, choreography and costumes. The performances will be directed and filmed by award winning film maker Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick. This new production performed June 9 to a packed house  may be the most ambitious performance to date of First Voice.

Brenda Wong Aoki is incandescent in the role of the story teller. Art is drawn from life and Wong Aoki mines her own life for inspiration. This performance is no exception delving into ancestors and stories of previous generations and reminds me at times of the “Finding Your Roots” program on PBS. The complex plot with surprising karmic twists and turns is almost too much personal history to retain and keep track of. The Great Mother (devorah major) was a constant presence on stage and was played with magisterial authority and tenderness.

This new version of “Soul of the City” is a “communal ritual” begins in the plaza of the Presidio Theater with the Sacred Tree created by ikebana artist Hiroko Tsunetsuga. Attendees are invited to attach paper slips written with their hopes, dreams and aspirations. This is inspired by the Japanese tradition of hanging tanzaku poetry cards on flowering trees during the spring season. A Shinto priest invoked blessings on all attendees. The sound of trumpeting conch shell horns led the audience into the theater.

“Soul of the City” tells the story of a story teller who has no more stories to tell, pursued by ghosts and demons of racism and xenophobia. Based on events from the narrator’s life, it deals with separation, sickness and the aftermath of the COVID lockdown. The production creates a multimedia search for meaning with Japanese music and theater infused with poetry and Afro Asian jazz.

Written and performed by Wong Aoki. Directed and filmed by Omori and Slick. Original music by Mark Izu and Masaharu Koga. The orchestra was deftly directed by Koga who played shakuhachi,  percussion was  by Kenneth Nash and multi media effects were by Andi Wong and Olivia Ting. Striking colorful costumes  were designed by Lydia Tanji. Performers included Shoko Hikage on koto and vocals, Jimi Nakagawa on taiko and traps and Sara Sithi-Amnuai on trumpet. Kate Boyd was the  lighting designer. I liked the additional choreography by Claudine Naganuma. I also liked the choreographer’s use of kurogu (borrowed from kabuki), black clad assistants who are considered “invisible.” They danced in with props and wardrobe assistance that enhanced  the narrative and kept things moving along.

Wong Aoki is a nationally acclaimed story teller and performer. With her striking appearance and beautiful sense of style, her big hair, flashing eyes and sweeping gestures she is a commanding presence on and off the stage. She is known for creating monodramas based on noh and kabuki theater’s stillness and drama with the exaggerated gestures of commedia dell’arte mixed with contemporary story telling.

Izu is a leading Japanese American jazz player and composer combining jazz, world music with traditional Asian music. He studied with many masters but most importantly with an eminent gagaku master of ancient court music. He learned the sho (Japanese), sheng (Chinese) mouth organ and he also plays double bass. He has composed for symphony and film (the Dragon Painter) and chamber music. This handsome musician has partnered with Wong Aoki in life and art since 1976.

Their son, Kai Kane Aoki Izu carries on the family tradition, joining  the ensemble of dancers and performs the role of the dragon with assured grace and vitality.

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